After Al Groh was let go as defensive coordinator in the middle of the 2012 season, Paul Johnson made it clear that he wanted to simplify the defense and move away from Groh's 2-gap defensive front. Johnson chose Ted Roof, known for his "bend but don't break" style of defense, to replace Groh. Roof sought to limit the breakdowns that led to Groh's defense giving up big play after big play. In Roof's first season, he was successful in improving the defense, but subsequent seasons have shown some cracks Georgia Tech's passive style.
Let's talk about havoc, disruption, and the statistical indicators of a successfully aggressive defense. To quote SBNation's Bill Connelly in his 2015 preview of the Jackets:
Georgia Tech didn't create nearly enough havoc. The Jackets ranked 102nd in Adj. Sack Rate and a decent-not-great 62nd in stuff rate. There were some bright spots -- KeShun Freeman was Tech's best pass rusher as a true freshman, tackle Adam Gotsis combined 6.5 TFLs with four passes defensed, and the top three linebackers combined for 20 tackles for loss and eight passes defensed. The secondary made plays, but early-down inefficiency was a big hindrance. Tech couldn't stop the run and couldn't rush the passer enough to make up the difference.
Connelly's was spot-on here, as the Jackets seemed to create even less havoc in 2015. However, we need to look at the statistical trends to get a better picture of what's happening. Below are a few havoc stats, namely Tackles For Loss, Sacks, Passes Defensed, and Fumbles Forced, for the team over Roof's 3 years.
These stats aren't encouraging, and show that Ted Roof's defenses struggle to create havoc more and more each year. You may be asking: "How does this correlate with the most important defensive stat, points allowed?" Well, in 2013, Tech was an impressive 30th in FBS in scoring defense, giving up just 22.8 ppg. 2014 and 2015 were strikingly similar With 25.7 and 25.8 ppg respectively. The 2015 defense was able to stay on pace with the 2014 squad despite its abysmal havoc stats by reducing the opponents average yards per play by a bit. So, in a way, 2015 did a bit better job of playing passive defense. Neither 2014 or 2015, however, has come close to the defensive success that was 2013. If the defense is ever going to return to form, the havoc has to return.
So what about Georgia Tech's defense makes it passive? There are a lot of reasons, but we'll focus on soft zones and defensive line technique.
Most Georgia Tech fans are aware of Georgia Tech's tendency to play off the ball in zone coverage, and the frustrating plays that occasionally result. Take this play against Virginia Tech this year for example.
DJ White backpedals his way out of the play, and as a result gives up an easy 10 yards and first down. This isn't even the most egregious example of soft coverage I could find. Take this still from the 2014 Miami game.
The idea behind these defensive alignments is simple: limit the offense's ability to beat you over the top with long pass plays. This does, however, encourage teams to take advantage of the weak underbelly of the defense for easy yards. It limits offensive explosion, but falls victim to offensive efficiency. Teams utilize quick screen passes often against Georgia Tech, and the defensive alignment is helping them succeed regularly. Here's another capture from the 2014 Miami game, showing an alignment exceptionally vulnerable to screens.
With Trips to the near side, the defense only has 1 DB on that side of the defense within 10 yards of the LOS. That's easy yards. Miami actually ran a screen on this play and didn't get nearly as much as they could have due to some terrible blocks, but these types of plays happen frequently with more favorable results for the offense. Soft coverage affects havoc stats in a number of ways. By allowing largely uncontested receptions, the Passes Defensed stat suffers. Simultaneously, the offense is encouraged to make shorter throws, resulting in the defensive line having little to no chance to get to the quarterback. The high success rate on these plays also allows teams to boost their offensive efficiency metrics. As we saw in 2014, an efficient offense is a deadly one.
Now for the Defensive Line. I'm not going to talk about blitzing here, as Roof as shown on many occasions that he's willing to bring extra rushers. It's about technique. When studying Tech's pass rushers over the past couple of seasons, I've noticed a disturbing trend. They aren't making aggressive pass rush moves when they engage opposing offensive linemen. They also aren't using counter moves and are not making much of an effort to disengage from blockers when rushing the passer. This plays right into the hands of the OL, who try to square up the pass rusher and get their hands into the defender's chest. The DL does try to push the pocket, but when your DEs are 240 lbs, bull rush isn't always effective. Take the following clip from this year's VT game for example.
It's a short pass, so you don't see it for a long time, but it can be seen. When I first started notice this trend, I thought it was due to inexperience or players not understanding the coaching. But over time I began to see it from most players, especially the DEs. This could be a product of playing the run first, or making sure the DL doesn't fall victim to QB draws. It does, however, negatively affect the team's sack rate.
The Effect of Talent
As great as the havoc stats look for 2013, Jeremiah Attaochu accounted for 16 TFL, 12.5 Sacks, 2 PD, and 1 FF that year. Just 1 player can greatly affect the game and what the DC is capable of doing. The 2013 DL went largely unappreciated at the time, but had 2 future NFL 2nd round draft picks. Georgia Tech has struggled to find a dominant pass rusher in the wake of Attaochu's departure, and a lack of DL talent has certainly played into Roof's decision to be more conservative., as has his veteran secondary. As depth and talent appears to be improving along the DL, and if these young players reach their potential, it will be interesting to see how the team's levels of aggression change, and how that affects the stats.
With the DL depth finally recovering from the 2013 recruiting disaster, it's time for the defense to begin trending upward towards 2013 form once again. Much of this will, however, depend on design and gameplan. The Tech defense will need to evolve this year, and will be one of the biggest factors determining the success of the team in 2016. The defense may be called upon to carry the team, and a performance like last year's just won't cut it.